03/09/2004 12:00AM

Signs of a sport in distress

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Deadly poison or a magic elixir of life and rejuvenation?

Those were the dramatically different views on rebates from four of the best minds in racing last week in the liveliest session of a very lively joint annual meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America in Ft. Myers, Fla.

David Willmot, president, chairman, and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment and racing's most eloquent public speaker, argued vigorously that "parasitic" rebaters were lethal.

Two of racing's best known professional players, stockbroker Dave Cuscuna and economist Maury Wolff, tried unsuccessfully to convince Willmot that rebates were lifeblood and a new revenue stream of increased handle for racing.

Law professor, former racing commissioner, and humorist Bennett Liebman suggested the answer was for racing commissions and legislatures to legalize rebates for racetracks. He has rules ready to enable them to do it.

Willmot is convinced that rebaters, selling a product without paying for its production, can kill the sport, and he was at his dramatic best in making the case. He argued that rebaters, not having to pay purses or track construction or maintenance, are buying Fords and selling them as Mercedes, and pocketing the difference. And he called racing insane for allowing it to happen.

Cuscuna claimed that declines in racing were well on their way before rebates, and argued that the increased play of the sport's thousand biggest bettors have boosted handle by hundreds of millions. Willmot acknowledged big bettors may be increasing handle through more betting, but said there is no point in tracks increasing revenues if they are going to lose money on the product they sell by trading 18 percent dollars for 3 percent dollars they charge for their signals.

Wolff, speaking as a trained economist as well as big bettor, thinks racing does the worst job of pricing its product of any business he knows. He said regulatory restrictions were part of the problem, but said that players at his level and Cuscuna's were extremely conscious of price.

Liebman, a wry observer of the racing scene whose legal knowledge of the sport and years as a New York regulator and racetracker give him a unique background, chided racing for being a hapless industry so confused it can't even decide whether racetrack is one word or two.

Another panel at the TRA/HTA meeting discussed media coverage, or non-coverage, and I entered that fray suggesting that if diminishing coverage continues, as it did last week when the Chicago Tribune announced it was cutting back on entries and results, racing faced death not by poison or dagger but by slow erosion and attrition. If people don't read or hear about racing or see it on television, there is no way they are going to be attracted to it, and attendance figures continent-wide bear that out. If coverage continues to disappear, rebates or illegal medication or other problems of the sport will become immaterial.

David Willmot took strong exception to that, but his own major league operation, down in numbers, may well be suffering from diffident treatment by Toronto's two major newspapers, the Globe and Mail and Star. The same is true of The Meadowlands, where New Jersey's biggest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, also has cut back on racing coverage. Eight miles away, The New York Times gives Thoroughbred racing precious little coverage and harness racing none.

Billy Reed, the former sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Sports Illustrated veteran and two-time Eclipse journalism award winner, laid part of the blame on racing itself. Speaking on the media panel, he suggested that racing was allowing diminution of coverage to occur by not aggressively insisting it was a sport worthy of coverage, and not pushing hard enough or persistently enough on solid features of the people and animals who make the sport great.

Racing lawyer Ned Bonnie, speaking on a medication panel with Dr. Scot Waterman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium and Dr. George Maylin, the distinguished Cornell university researcher, hammered hard at the thesis of his white paper, "Do We Really Want to Stop the Misuse of Drugs in Horses?" Bonnie said that unless adequate funding is provided for testing through a per-start charge, the Consortium is headed for the same frustrating futility as its numerous predecessors.

The two days of discussions were fascinating, and you can watch them on Roberts Communications Network's video streaming with one click on HTA's home page at www.harnesstracks.com, or directly at www.hta.robertscomnet.com.